Ask smooth jazz whiz kid-turned genre star Brian Culbertson about his chief influences, and you might expect the keyboardist to list guys like Joe Sample, George Duke and Chick Corea — melodic and improvisational innovators whose success paved the way for his own. He’ll get to that list eventually, but there’s no doubt that growing up in Chicago, horn players and horn bands were the true catalyst for his ultimate musical development. His father Jim, a high school jazz band director, was a trumpet player and Culbertson — who started playing trombone so he could join a school band himself - couldn’t get enough of Chicago, Tower of Power, Maynard Ferguson, David Sanborn and The Brecker Brothers.
Is that perhaps the reason that his series of bestselling recordings over the past decade feature so many sax-keyboard lead melodies, brass sections and horn harmonies? Come On Up, his latest hit on Warner Bros, features longtime Culbertson compatriot and fellow Windy City native Steve Cole (who was the keyboardist’s sideman while cultivating his own solo career) on two key tracks, including the raucous first single “Say What?” and Rick Braun on the moody “Last Night.” Or does the overwhelming success of sax (and Braun’s trumpet) on smooth jazz radio mean that a keyboardist must have that sound to receive airplay?
“The genre definitely has a love affair with the sax, but the reason I like using it on my songs has to do with writing good arrangements, something I keep getting better at,” Culbertson says. “The piano’s notes are transitory, while the sax gives you longer notes. So if I’m looking for a strong hook sometimes, I want to double the piano with it. It takes home the emotion a little more. The second single, ‘Serpentine Fire,’ kicks without that. I never do anything just to get played. What gets airplay and attention are songs with good melodies, hooks and grooves. Horns just add punch where it seems appropriate.”
In a genre where sax players are the most recognizable faces (think Kenny G, Dave Koz, Boney James), Culbertson believes that playing keys helps him stand out. Listeners may have trouble distinguishing one sax god from another, but when a piano oriented track comes on, chances are they can say with confidence who it is.
“There are always 500 new sax players trying to break through, and that’s probably because it’s the instrument that has brought the most success to smooth jazz,” he adds. “Sax used to be used a lot in pop music, but these days is very much pigeonholed as a traditional or contemporary jazz instrument. If you play sax well, this is where you’ve got to be. On the other hand, piano and keyboard players have more options in terms of musical genres. Every rock and R&B band needs a keyboard player. Instrumental music is just one viable alternative.”
Culbertson has also, on occasion, played a little trombone on his recordings. Over the years, as he’s developed into one of the genre’s most dynamic live performers, he’s also spiced things up by jumping up, running around the stage and blowing away. “I enjoy the freedom of cutting loose and wailing, and like most keyboardists, I get a little stir crazy just having to stand in one place. It allows me to be mobile. I still toy with the idea of doing a trombone record someday.”
Like Culbertson, Kevin Toney — whose new, funk drenched and elegance spiced Shanachie outing Sweet Spot, is one of the best discs of the year - is a popular melodic pianist and keyboardist with a great appreciation for classic horn players, albeit from a previous generation — Bird, Trane and Lester Young. Toney, who launched his career as a member of the 70s R&B outfit The Blackbyrds, has a ready explanation for the sax’s dominance over piano in both generations as the most popular instrument: “People want a sound that emulates the human voice, because that brings them closer to the emotion of a song. The piano is the only instrument that can play a complete arrangement of any song without accompaniment, but it doesn’t touch the heart the same.”
Still, Toney prefers letting his primary instrument carry the weight of the songs, without sax accompaniment. A notable exception on the new project is “Coast To Coast,” which features labelmate Pamela Williams on soprano sax. “One of the reasons I do my records without horns is that there are so many out there and I really strive to be different,” he says. “I’ve been told by record and radio people alike that songs with sax sell more records, but I’m a pianist and I like to feature what I do best. Like Brian says, making a keyboard oriented album gives us an edge, a healthy alternative. I have a lot of things I want to say, and I can say them like this. I could use tons of keyboards and use synth for the main melody more than I do, but focusing on the piano is my way of keeping the human element front and center.”
EARTHLY DELIGHTS: Mark Winkler is an L.A. based singer/songwriter who since the late 1980s has mastered both smooth and straight ahead jazz, applying his deft lyrics and cool phrasing to both types of projects over the years. In June, I profiled his latest and one of his best labor of loves ever, Sings Bobby Troup, which updated the “Route 66” songwriter’s tunes for the modern martini lounge era. Winkler’s prodigious catalog extends back nearly 20 years, and he recently struck a deal with the Varese Sarabande label to compile 16 top tracks on The Best of Mark Winkler: Garden of Earthly Delights. The tunes reflect a wide range of styles, and the marketing hook is such that even if you’re new to the vocal experience, the great musicians he’s played with should pique your interest. Among those on hand are Gerald Albright, David Benoit, Boney James, Brian Bromberg, Dianne Reeves, The Rippingtons, Joe Sample, Tom Scott and Dan Siegel. A real treasure from an often underappreciated talent.
HOT SUMMER JAZZ: Everyone makes a huge deal of the annual Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl, but Southern California smooth jazz fans know the best festival for “our” kind of music is also the (literally) hottest at Central Park in Old Town Pasadena. The mid-July weekend featured temperatures well into the 90s and powerful performances by Euge Groove, Acoustic Alchemy (back to their guitar focus after a sensuous and funky flirtation with lots of horns), Gerald Albright with Jonathan Butler and, closing it down on Saturday night, the funk-intensive BWB (Rick Braun, Kirk Whalum, Norman Brown).
ALL ABOARD – Last month, this column profiled an upcoming genre event that will hopefully become a popular annual tradition with a touch of exotica, a la my favorite event, The Catalina Island Jazz Trax Festival. The 3rd Annual Smooth Jazz Cruise aboard the Costa Atlantica (part of the Costa Cruise Line), headed for the Western Caribbean January 18-25, was an immediate sellout, leading DaVinci Travel to offer a second week of smooth jazz cruising to the Eastern Caribbean (San Juan, St. Thomas, St. John, Nassau, etc.) from January 25-February 1. The musical lineup for the second week includes Warren Hill, Jeff Golub, Euge Groove, Marion Meadows, Chieli Minucci, Jonathan Butler, Kirk Whalum, Peter White and Alexander Zonjic making the nights at sea funky and smooth. For information and reservations, please call the Davinci Travel Group, 800-887-4379 or check out www.smoothcruise2004.com.
What I’m listening to:
1) Eva Cassidy, American Tune (Blix Street) — The late songstress who became renowned long after her passing seems to have left a lot of incredible recordings behind that friends and former bandmates keep finding. This latest batch finds her redefining tunes made famous by Billie Holliday, The Beatles, Paul Simon and even Cyndi Lauper.
2) Kirk Whalum, Into My Soul (Warner Bros.)
3) Jimmy Sommers, Lovelife (Higher Octave)
4) David Lanz, Cristofori’s Dream (Narada)
5) Vince Guaraldi, The Charlie Brown Suite & Other Favorites (Bluebird)